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Chapter 5

It can easily be understood that such a man as Douglass, thrown thus into stimulating daily intercourse with some of the brightest minds of his generation, all animated by a high and noble enthusiasm for liberty and humanity,--such men as Garrison and Phillips and Gay and Monroe and many others,--should have developed with remarkable rapidity those reserves of character and intellect which slavery had kept in repression. And yet, while aware of his wonderful talent for oratory, he never for a moment let this knowledge turn his head or obscure the consciousness that he had brought with him out of slavery of some of the disabilities of that status. Naturally, his expanding intelligence sought a wider range of expression; and his simple narrative of the wrongs of slavery gave way sometimes to a discussion of its philosophy. His abolitionist friends would have preferred him to stick a little more closely to the old line,--to furnish the experience while they provided the argument. But the strong will that slavery had not been able to break was not always amenable to politic suggestion. Douglass's style and vocabulary and logic improved so rapidly that people began to question his having been a slave. His appearance, speech, and manner differed so little in material particulars from those of his excellent exemplars that many people were sceptical of his antecedents. Douglass had, since his escape from slavery, carefully kept silent about the place he came from and his master's name and the manner of his escape, for the very good reason that their revelation would have informed his master of his whereabouts and rendered his freedom precarious; for the fugitive slave law was in force, and only here and there could local public sentiment have prevented its operation. Confronted with the probability of losing his usefulness, as the "awful example," Douglass took the bold step of publishing in the spring of 1845 the narrative of his experience as a slave, giving names of people and places, and dates as nearly as he could recall them. His abolitionist friends doubted the expediency of this step; and Wendell Phillips advised him to throw the manuscript into the fire, declaring that the government of Massachusetts had neither the power nor the will to protect him from the consequences of his daring.

The pamphlet was widely read. It was written in a style of graphic simplicity, and was such an _exposť_ of slavery as exasperated its jealous supporters and beneficiaries. Douglass soon had excellent reasons to fear that he would be recaptured by force or guile and returned to slavery or a worse fate. The prospect was not an alluring one; and hence, to avoid an involuntary visit to the scenes of his childhood, he sought liberty beyond the sea, where men of his color have always enjoyed a larger freedom than in their native land.

In 1845 Douglass set sail for England on board the _Cambria_, of the Cunard Line, accompanied by James N. Buffum, a prominent abolitionist of Lynn, Massachusetts. On the same steamer were the Hutchinson family, who lent their sweet songs to the anti-slavery crusade. Douglass's color rendered him ineligible for cabin passage, and he was relegated to the steerage. Nevertheless, he became quite the lion of the vessel, made the steerage fashionable, was given the freedom of the ship, and invited to lecture on slavery. This he did to the satisfaction of all the passengers except a few young men from New Orleans and Georgia, who, true to the instincts of their caste, made his strictures on the South a personal matter, and threatened to throw him overboard. Their zeal was diminished by an order of the captain to put them in irons. They sulked in their cabins, however, and rushed into print when they reached Liverpool, thus giving Douglass the very introduction he needed to the British public, which was promptly informed, by himself and others, of the true facts in regard to the steamer speech and the speaker.

Charles W. Chesnutt

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